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"We draw you in with our beauty"

Mankind’s first home was the garden. And while the Eden of the Bible can no longer be strolled around, alas, the Chicago Botanic Gardens are with us.

I have visited hundreds of times — the place has kept my wife and I sane during COVID. It is not in our selfish interest to encourage people to visit, but it is certainly in your interest that the crowd go at least once.

especially now. This summer, the gardens celebrate their 50th anniversary and showcase 10 large commissioned outdoor works of art. The second half of August may be the ideal time to explore what I often describe as ‘heavenly’. (“Edenic” doesn’t roll off the tongue.)

Half the size of New York’s Central Park (385 acres), the Chicago Botanic Garden is not actually in Chicago, but in Glencoe, just east of the Edens Expressway between Cook Lake and Dundee Road.

Visitors are guided through a wide range of natural habitats, from formal English walled gardens to wildflower-filled prairies, from carefully cultivated Japanese island gardens complete with teahouses to forested walks under towering oak trees. will be You are not in a primeval forest.

“The Rookery,” by North Carolina artist Patrick Dougherty, is one of ten artworks commissioned by the Chicago Botanic Gardens to mark its 50th anniversary.

There are birch, water lily and desert cactus vegetable gardens and orchards. I have seen deer, otters and, on memorable occasions, hooded aisa ducks. One of the joys is changing the scale and perspective. Raise your gaze from a close-up inspection of gorgeous lilies to view the lagoon with a distant bridge flanked by weeping willows.

The place is so big that we recently walked around it for an hour, but didn’t go inside, just circled around it.

One of the amazing aspects of botanical gardens is that no matter how often you visit, often three times a week, they are always fresh and new due to the changing light at different times of the day and seasons. , is interesting. Year-round, plant phases, annual shows — orchids, jack-o-lanterns, Christmas light shows. My wife and I visited in her February when the temperature was her 20’s and the garden is beautiful with snow.

Summer is the best. As impressive as the thousands of varieties of flowers, shrubs, trees, ferns, and other plants are, another big part of the garden experience is the variety of people around you. All ages, races, languages, ethnicities, walking together in harmony, the Eden effect.

A Hasidic couple on a first date have a serious conversation on a bench. Multi-generational Muslim family; older Asian man with his hands folded behind his back; Dialogue snippets in Spanish, Polish and Urdu. Visitors often mark milestones, so weddings, coming-of-age ceremonies, proms, churches, or my favourite, simply having a friend take a picture to capture that quintessential immigrant moment. Send back to Bulgaria, Pakistan and Chad.


Gene Frank Sieg, president and CEO of the Chicago Botanic Gardens, explores Patrick Doutati’s “Rookery,” one of ten large-scale artworks commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Glencoe’s treasures. They are on display until the end of September.

Last week, I stopped by for a walk with our President and CEO, Jean Franczyk. The place was unusually crowded for a Tuesday. What is this, free day? I wondered, my old joke, but it did.

Admission isn’t cheap — about $60 for a family of four — but buying a membership is a bargain. Go three times and you are in the black. There are at least two free days per month (next one is mid-September). Free admission for active duty military personnel and teachers.

Franczyk started by pointing out the one-year anniversary artwork that literally greets visitors overhead. “Hebrarium,” a “picture in the air” by British artist Rebecca Louise Law, was carefully created from her 10,000 flowers collected in her garden over the course of a year. It was dried and hung on a copper wire from the ceiling of the visitor center entrance.

“This is the first installation she’s ever done where all the materials were gathered from the scene,” said Franczyk. .”

I’m not going to criticize all 10 works. It’s only natural that some works I like more than others. Note, however, that you need to walk far enough into the garden to lay your eyes on Patrick Dougherty’s “The Rookery” (what I call Wicker’s Castle). Very capricious.

You might think that a beauty-based institution in gardening and botany might not fare well in the turbulent times of the 21st century. But he said 50 years later, the botanical garden is stronger than ever, with his 667 staff, including 20 scientists, 59,000 members, and more than a million visitors a year.

Shida Appraisal Garden, which opened last Thanksgiving, is a charming expanse of bleached wooden peristyle and crabapple canopy tunnels. They are currently renovating the entrance and adding picnic vacancies to replace the tables that were previously banished to the parking lot.

Progress is slowed by the problems everyone else faces. “Supply he has a problem with the chain. A paint problem. A steel problem… a cement problem,” laughs Franczyk. The electric tram on order is in a container somewhere in the world.

None of this affects the glorious abundance on display everywhere.

“Nature is in demand,” said Franczyk. “People are hungry for outdoor spaces. They get rest and relief from it. It motivates us to protect, to protect the planet, to feel better because we spent time outside. Good for people, good for the planet.”

There is not much room to talk about the history, but the reason for creating the garden is simple. Chicago didn’t have gardens.

“Among all the major cities in the country,” said WAP Pullman, president of the Chicago Horticultural Society, who was the driving force behind creating the gardens. “Chicago does not have great horticultural facilities dedicated to promoting gardening as a way of life.”

Pullman – nephew of railroad magnate George Pullman, great-grandson of Alan Pinkerton, founder of a detective agency who apparently knew how to get things done – persuaded the Woods of Cook County and started building railcars. Saved to sign his 40-year lease on his 300 acres of ‘Glencoe Wetlands’, part of the Skokie Lagoon, contaminated with wastewater from his Road sewage treatment plant in Krabi.

First, he had to raise $1 million to show he was serious, so he robbed businesses and sold jars of homemade parsley jam.

“We have to think 50 years ahead,” said Pullman.


Most visitors never see it, but tucked away at the south end of the Chicago Botanic Gardens is a maintenance building that I believe was designed by Harry Wease. The nearby administration building, designed by Arthur Nolan, is certainly an homage to his triangular work.

Landscaping began in 1966. Beloved Chicago architect Harry Weas played a role in the early design. An otherwise unremarkable maintenance facility at the southernmost point displays his trademark triangular flourish. Planting began in the spring of his 1967. By the end of 1972, there were 20,000 plants and trees, a model garden, a 60-acre lagoon, and nature trails for the blind.

The Botanic Garden is still particularly welcoming to people with many disabilities on Tuesdays, with an enabling garden offering wheelchair-height planters and an array of special plants meant to be smelled and touched. I’m here.

“I think it’s going to be great,” Pullman said presciently when the Cook County Commission signed the land transfer on January 27, 1965. “We intend to.”

Mission complete.


You can’t tell the story of the Chicago Botanical Garden without its flowers. In addition to nurturing beauty, gardens sponsor scientific and educational activities and help protect endangered plants.